“Blackwashing” Cleopatra, you say? A case of moral panic?

 The psychologist Stanley Cohen described moral panic as “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” (Cohen, 1972, p. 1). The casting of a bi-racial actor in the role of Cleopatra for a Netflix docu-series has prompted accusations of “blackwashing” history and arguably a state of moral panic, which the media has (largely) endorsed.

This isn’t the first time that such a response occurred. In 2008 I was involved in a project to digitally reconstruct Cleopatra. The process (described here) prompted an unfavourable response from some groups because the reconstruction showed a young woman with a darker complexion and African-type hair. It used to surprise me that so many people with no formal training in either classical archaeology/art history or Egyptology felt that their opinion was a reality. Fifteen years later and some people are responding in exactly the same way. Of course nobody can know for certain what Cleopatra looked like. We have representations of the ruler from during her lifetime, but the extent to which these reflected her true appearance remains uncertain. However, the point of contention for many has really been her perceived ancestry.

The same people who criticize the presentation of Cleopatra as “Black” (I will be deconstructing this later in the post) insist that she was”light skinned” and “white”. It isn’t helpful to apply modern racialized terms of “Black” and “white”, especially when they were meaningless to ancient people. Cleopatra was descended from Macedonian Greeks who were immigrants to Egypt. This much is clear. However, it is possible that her mother and grandmother were Egyptian (their identity is unknown). Leaving those modern racialized terms aside, if we look at depictions of ancient people from the Nile Valley their hair is black in colour and coily/curly and their complexions range from light brown to dark brown.

A barbering scene from the tomb of Userhat

Ancient people from Greece and Rome showed the people from the Nile Valley in the same way the Egyptians had depicted themselves for thousands of years. Paintings from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii show Egyptian priests with a darker complexion (see below); their hair shaved for the purpose of purification during rituals. The priestesses and members of the cult who were depicted on the walls of the Roman temple are shown with a range of complexions. Italy under the Romans and Egypt in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods were multicultural societies and were not bound by modern concepts of racist hierarchies.

Roman wall painting from Pompeii showing an Egyptian priest
Roman wall painting from Pompeii showing an Egyptian priest

Ethnicity vs “race”

Cleopatra was bi-cultural (Egyptian and Greek). However, she chose to present herself exclusively according to Egyptian culture in her homeland. Her Greek-style royal imagery was preserved for coinage (an international currency). It was this style of representation that was adopted for contemporary and posthumous portraits of the queen in Italy.

The Ptolemies, who were ethnically Greek had ruled Egypt for over 250 years at the time of her birth. For their first century of rule they had balanced their presentations separately as Greek kings/queens and as the Egyptian royal family. This was doubtless to muster political and religious kudos among the indigenous priesthood, who were a powerful and educated class. Adopting the Egyptian concept of kingship awarded the rulers a deified status that had hitherto been reserved for deceased mortals in Greece. By the reign of Ptolemy V many Egyptian-style representations of the king borrowed from Greek-style portraits of the rulers. Temple reliefs continued to be decorated with purely Egyptian style images of the rulers; their names translated in hieroglyphs.

Ethnicity is a cultural identity. Many recent commentators are confusing this with the modern concept of racialized identities. It is possible to be multi-ethnic (multi-cultural) and indeed this was recognised in Ptolemaic Egypt where Greeks and Egyptians married and had families. Any research on Ptolemaic society shows this to be the case. However, unlike her predecessors we only have evidence of Cleopatra depicting herself in Egypt as an Egyptian. As noted, her presentation overseas catered to a European audience and was essentially different.

Taking account of the possibility that Cleopatra’s mother and grandmother were Egyptian people, it seems plausible to present her as someone who is part European and part Egyptian (African). In modern racialized terms- as bi-racial. It is therefore notable that those who object to this premise claim that Cleopatra could not have been “Black”. The argument that she was descended and culturally Greek are irrelevant to her racialized identity. Moreover, it is the same people who have decided that a bi-racial Cleopatra is “Black”, perpetuating the so-called ‘one-drop rule’ used historically in the US. By recognising that Cleopatra may have had an Egyptian mother and/or grandmother it places the ruler more directly within an Egyptian historical context rather than removing her, as has been claimed.

For those who state that the Ptolemies married their siblings- this is true until the time of Ptolemy XII (Cleopatra’s father). He was illegitimate and refereed to as a “bastard” (nothos). Why then is it so far stretched that Cleopatra could be part Egyptian? A more pertinent question should perhaps be- why do people need Cleopatra to be racialized as “white”? I will consider this from a psychological standpoint in my next post.

The truth about Roman ‘portraits’ of Cleopatra

A Roman painted portrait claimed to represent Cleopatra VII has been circulating the news and social media over the past week. The fragment (Figure 1) dates to the first century CE and was found at Herculaneum. There is no inscription to identify the subject. It seems strange, therefore, that the image is being shared as a certain depiction of Cleopatra. Its appeal is doubtless the pale skin and red hair, which supports later European ideals and impressions of the ruler. In fact it has been suggested (Herbig, 1962) that the pale skin against a dark background was taken from a cameo, used for the model.


The identification of the painting as a portrait of Cleopatra stems from the suggested diadem (crown) and through comparison with coin images (Walker and Higgs, 2001). However, the image of the painting below shows that the fragment is damaged around the nape of the neck. A second painting from Pompeii shows that the “diadem” is in fact a head cloth that is tied around the bun to complete the hairstyle (Figure 2). This feature differs from two marble portraits of Cleopatra from Rome and also the coins (Figure 3).

Depiction of a woman found at Herculaneum
Figure 1 Fragment of a wall painting found at Herculaneum. Naples National Museo Nazionale Archeologica 90778

As noted, the Herculaneum fragment can be compared to similar depictions found in the so-called House of the Orchard at Pompeii (one example illustrated below; ). And this gives a further explanation as to why the two images have been associated with Cleopatra. House of the Orchard contains some Egyptianizing motifs (Room 5) alongside classical Greek iconography and Roman bucolic scenes. For this reason it has been suggested that the bust (Figure 2) might represent Cleopatra. This is in spite of the subject wearing a band around her head rather than the royal diadem (crown; see Walker and Higgs, 2001 for discussion).

Pompeian wall painting showing a female bust
Figure 2 Wall painting from the House of the Orchard Pompeii

Aside from the missing royal iconography, there is the dating of the wall paintings. The style of wall paintings at the House of the Orchard has been dated to 69-79 CE on account of the style of the wall paintings; so 100 years after the birth of Cleopatra. It is not a contemporary piece even if it were to represent the ruler (there is no definitive evidence to suggest that it does).

Furthermore, the Egyptianizing reliefs at the House of the Orchard are uniform in style (see Figure 4) and are substantially different from the style of the unidentified female bust. The biggest problem in identifying these images as Cleopatra remains the hair band. It’s style is completely different to the royal diadem or fillet found on coins and statues of Cleopatra (see Figure 3 for the Vatican portrait).

Figure 3 Detail of a sculpture representing . Vatican Museums, Pius-Clementine Museum.

Identifying ancient portraits

There are a number of ways to identify an ancient Roman portrait. This is not an exact science and the process requires knowledge of the period as well as the provenance (find spot).

  1. Inscription- not always as straight forward as it might first appear because the inscription could have been added later, or someone could have re-used part or all of a statue/sculpture.
  2. Location- if a particular sculpture was found in a location that was only used for a set period of time, it might be possible to associated a representation with a particular donor or ruler. The problem with this method is that statues were often reused for building material.
  3. Comparison with coin portraits- coins typically have the name of the ruler inscribed around their image and have been used for many years in Classical archaeology and art history to identify representations. The main issue with this method is that coin portraits are small, they are stamped on the metal of the coin using a die, which can become worn or distorted. Nevertheless this has been the main method of identifying royal and imperial portraits.
  4. Iconography- coins can also be useful when it comes to linking specific symbols with a particular ruler. This is particularly true in regards to Hellenistic rulers (including the Ptolemies).
Egyptianizing wall painting.
Figure 4 House of the Orchard, Pompeii. Egyptianizing wall painting.

It’s not always that simple…

The problem is that wealthy Romans who commissioned portraits of themselves were often shown with a likeness of the Emperor and his family. This is why it is essential not to use one of the aforementioned methods of identification but to consider them all. Crucially, royal or imperial status carried specific iconographic features. Hence, the problem with identifying the “portraits” at the start of this post with Cleopatra.

The fundamental issue remains the fact that these images are from private houses and were made after the death of Cleopatra in a foreign country. Over the past week they have been used by some emotively and politically to support the belief that Cleopatra had a pale complexion. Neither of the wall paintings has the appropriate iconography to represent a Hellenistic royal.

There are two motivations to associate these paintings with Cleopatra. The first is to counteract the suggestion that Cleopatra may have been partly of Egyptian ancestry (her mother/grandmother). The second is rooted in the belief that the Ancient Nile Valley population were not indigenous African people. I have written about such responses in a previous post cognitive dissonance. Over the next few blog posts I will be adopting a critical approach to review representations that have been identified as Cleopatra.


Herbig, R. (1962). Nugae Pompeianorum: unbekannte Wandmalereien des dritten pompejanischen Stils (Vol. 1). Ernst Wasmuth.

Pugliese Carratelli G. & Baldassarre I. (1990). Pompei : pitture e mosaici. Istituto della enciclopedia italiana.

Walker S. & Higgs P. (2001). Cleopatra of Egypt : from history to myth. British Museum; Princeton University Press.

Framing Cleopatra

The announcement in mid-October that Gal Gadot would play the last Cleopatra in a new film provoked responses of whitewashing and reports of a ‘backlash’ in both social and the mainstream media. There were those who commended the casting and those who found it inappropriate for two key reasons. The first objection related to Gadot’s nationality. Social media commentators felt that it was insensitive to cast as Israeli national as the ruler of an Arab nation (I will come back to this in due course). Second, was the question of Cleopatra’s racialized identity and the possibility that her mother and grandmother were indigenous Egyptians rather than Greeks. 

The issues with the casting therefore relate to Cleopatra’s ethnicized and racialized identities. I was interested to see if the responses (academic and general) could be categorised into frameworks in order to see which approach offered the most appropriate and inclusive response. 

Response categories 


The Classicist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) responds by describing Cleopatra as a Macedonian Greek. This effectively restricts both identities to European and Hellenistic Greek. 


The Historian (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) uses texts to effectively remain impartial whilst acknowledging that there are questions relating to the identities of her mother/grandmother. The typical response is that we will likely never know what she looked like (or her racialised identity). This approach does not consider Cleopatra’s ethnicized identity. 


The Egyptologist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) can situate the evidence of Egyptian material culture within a traditional framework. However, given the wider debate around the racialized identity of the people of ancient Kemet, the approach is largely concerned with Cleopatra’s ethicized identity. The Egyptological approach is essential because without understanding how Cleopatra was presented in her home country, it is impossible to fully understand her image overseas.   


The Archaeologist (used here to describe the adopted approach irrespective of training) has the ability to expand upon both identities through studying the material culture from Egypt and overseas. This approach can include the identification of human remains, which could answer the question of Cleopatra’s racialized identity. We do not know where the ruler was buried. However, the remains of (what is assumed to be) her sister in a tomb at Ephesus have supported that some members of the family were of mixed African and European ancestry. 

Model showing a hierarchy of approaches

Critical approaches

Two dominant critical approaches have also emerged from the recent responses to the announcement of the new film. The first seeks to decolonize more generally and it has been suggested that an actor of Arab descent should play the role of Cleopatra. A fundamental issue with this association of course is, as I have noted, that Cleopatra ruled in Egypt long before the Arab settlement in North Africa. If the maternal side of her family were indigenous women this should be reflected in any contemporary representations of Cleopatra. This brings me to the second approach, which is to consider the ethnicity of Cleopatra within an African centred context. The evidence from Egyptian archaeology and material culture supports this as a valid option; Cleopatra was only presented according to Egyptian (Kemite) traditions. This included her representation at the Temple of Isis in Alexandria (seen as a Hellenistic city), where she and her son are depicted in Egyptian-style statues.  

And the film?

Cleopatra (VII’s) father was referred to as nothos (illegitimate) and the identity of her mother has been questioned by historians. It has been suggested that both women may have been Egyptian and so African. With this in mind, at the very least, the film makers should have considered an actor of mixed ancestry to play the role of Cleopatra, and that this would have been a valid choice. Many institutions and industries are finally recognising the importance of correctly acknowledging the presence and achievements of people of African heritage. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the Film Industry to promote Cleopatra’s position as an African ruler of dual ancestry.  

The royal cobra in Kemet

The meaning of the royal cobra

More commonly known by its Hellenic name of uraeus, the iaret or rearing cobra is synonymous with the goddess of Lower Egypt- Wadjet. The symbol was adopted by the Kemite kings and from the Middle Kingdom the rulers always wore this image on their brows. The iaret served two purposes: first, it referenced the King’s rule over the northern part of Kemet; second, it protected the royal representations and so the king.

The cobra and vulture on the brow of the king

On some royal representations from the New Kingdom, the cobra appears with the vulture, representing the goddess Nekhbet, who was the southern counterpart of Wadjet, together the goddesses were referred to as the Two Ladies (Nebet Tawy), which became the title for the Nebty name of rulers. Only one group of rulers wore the double cobra: those of Dynasty 25, who ruled Kemet and Kush simultaneously. It is thought that the dual iaret representing the two regions and that this is why it is only found on male rulers dating to this period.

Granite sphinx with the head of King Taharqa from Temple ‘T’ at Kawa. British Museum (EA1770)

Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, circa 1560 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
Painted relief showing Ahmose Nefertari, now in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

Royal women generally wear a single cobra on their brows; however, when elevated to a goddess, they were awarded the vulture for protection and to recognise their status. This can be seen on the wall painting above where Ahmose Nefertari wears both a vulture and a cobra, representing her royal and divine status.

King’s Wife and King’s Mother Iset

The first royal female to wear two cobras was Iset, who was the wife of Thutmose (II) Aakheperkare (1492-1479 BCE) and mother of Thutmose (III) Menkheperre (179-1425 BCE). On the statue above the Iset takes the title Mother of the King, and it is possible that the dual cobras were intended to distinguish her in this role as opposed to royal wife; unfortunately not enough statues survive to know whether she consistently wore the dual version of the royal motif.

Fragment of a statue of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra

Royal Wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra (1388-1351 BCE)- Tiye- wore two cobras and a vulture on her representations. As you can see from the statue above, the cobra and vulture wear their appropriate geographical crowns thus representing the unification of the Two Lands of Kemet. The central figure of a vulture appears because the royal wife wears a full vulture headdress- if you look carefully on the statues above and below you can just seen the feathers of the vulture’s wings sitting on top of her hair.

Detail of a statuette of Tiye. Louvre, Paris.

Even the smallest of representations of this queen bore the same iconography, as illustrated by the small faience figure above. It is possible that Tiye adopted this iconography after the Thirty Year rule of her husband was celebrated- the Heb Sed festival. We know that she initially wore a single iaret and that the famous wooded statue of the royal wife (below) was adapted at some point and the single cobra replaced by two.

Representation of royal wife Tiye

Possibly following on from Tiye, Nefertiti who was wife of Akhenaten Neferkheperure-waenre (1351-1334 BCE) in the early part of their reign also adopted the dual cobras, but not the vulture. And on the famous relief (below) the royal wife is shown with 3 cobras around her crown; and one of the royal children plays with one as if it were alive. This changed in the later years when the single cobra was used for her representations.


Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Nefertari, Principal Wife of Rameses Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) in Dynasty 19 continued the tradition of wearing the double cobra, as seen on the colossal statue below and most of her other sculptures. During this period the double form seems to have been used to distinguish her as the Principal Wife.

Representation of the royal wife Nefertari at Abu Simbel

Royal Women of Dynasty 25

Relief from the Chapel of Amenirdis, Medinat Habu

As noted the Kings of Dynasty 25 wore two cobras on all of their representations, and were the first royal men to do so. The royal women during this period who were associated with the motif also had the elevated role of being the wife of the God Amun/Imen. On the tomb chapel of Amenirdis she and her successor Shepenwepet both wear the crown of the god (above). As goddesses on the relief the two women are shown with the divine vulture and headdress. However, on statuary they were shown with two cobras and a vulture. It seems likely during this later period that the double cobra and vulture were associated with title and role of God’s Wife of Amun/Imen.

Statue of Amenirdis

Meaning of multiple representations of the iaret

For the male rulers of Dynasty 25 the dual iaret seems to be associated with the two kingdoms of Kemet and Kush, and this is certainly the conclusion that most Egyptologists draw, not least of all because it appears on sculptures in both kingdoms.

Statues representing the Kushite kings, Kerma Museum Sudan

The dual iaret seems to have been reserved for royal women who fulfilled a particular role and is actually not at all commonly found. It can be associated with the roles of God’s Wife, Principal Wife of the King, and King’s Mother. Later in the Ptolemaic Period a triple form appeared. What this tradition shows is the careful consideration that went into representing members of the royal family and that this practice was ever-evolving, through until the last resident rulers, their wives and mothers.


The role of women in Kemet: representing power and divinity

The role of women in Kemet

For many years Egyptology was dominated by very traditional male academics who had little regard for women or their role in Kemite society. More recently, just as we have seen an increase in the numbers of scholars who approach this subject from a non-Eurocentric perspective, so too have we seen both male and female academics adopting feminist approaches to the study of women.

In Kemet, the role that a woman played and the degree of autonomy which she enjoyed was very much dependent on her status in society. On the few occasions when women traversed their traditional roles, artists often struggled to represent them. And at times, powerful women were presented in a secondary role according to the traditions of the time.

Detail of a relief representation of a Ptolemaic ruler and her consort. Museu Egipci de Barcelona. Photograph copyright and courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

The photograph above is of a type of object that we call a stela (plural stelae). It is a dedicatory relief and these object were used in religious and funerary contexts. I hadn’t seen this particular example before, and so was very excited when Dr Runoko Rashidi sent me the photograph. Why? Well because of the female royal figure is standing in front of the male. This is highly unusual in Kemite art.

Cleopatra and her son make offerings to the gods on the Temple of Hathor at Denderah

Detail of the South Wall of the Temple of Hathor, showing Cleopatra and her son Caesarion

Even Cleopatra VII, arguably one of Kemet’s most powerful female rulers both at home and overseas, stands behind her son on the famous relief on the South Wall of the Temple of Hathor at Denderah (above). Inside the temple there are representations of the ruler by herself. However, the inner walls would only ever have been seen by the priests. The outer wall is much more of a public space to promote Cleopatra and her son as co-rulers fulfilling their royal and divine duties.

Representing power and divinity

Ptolemaic female ruler. Detail of a stela in the Museu Egipci de Barcelona. Photograph copyright and reproduced with permission Dr Runoko Rashidi

So what is different about the female figure on this particular stela? The relief can be dated on stylistic grounds to around 116 BCE to 30 BCE, and is  therefore Ptolemaic. The female figure has to represent either Cleopatra III or Cleopatra VII, who both ruled with their sons. What is unusual is that the female stands in front of her male consort. The answer, as always, is in the iconography (the symbols that identify individuals in Kemet). If you look closely at what she wears on her head in the detail above you will see that she wears a vulture headdress. I mentioned this in an earlier post, the vulture cap is only worn by goddesses. This figure represents a divine queen and whereas all members of the royal family were seen to be divine by association with their roles, this figure is a goddess and has cults in her own right.

Ptolemy II makes an offering to Isis and his sister Arsinoe II. Temple of Isis at Philae

Divinity outweighs gender when it comes to the hierarchy of representations in Kemet. On the relief above we see an earlier Ptolemaic ruler making an offering to Isis; behind Isis is the newer goddess Arsinoe. Arsinoe waited until her death to be defied. However, both Cleopatra III and Cleopatra VII declared themselves to be living embodiments of Isis and both women had their own cults. The relief that we began with has to represent one of these two queens. Both ruled with their sons. Both were goddesses in their own right. Both were extremely powerful. And although these royal women ruled late in Kemet’s history and their families were European, they embraced the traditions of the older culture and were keen to be presented  accordingly. And they had numerous role models to choose from.

Divine wives

Prior to the Ptolemaic period, Kings of Kemet had more than one wife. Principal Wife was a title that elevated the mother of the heir to the throne. In Dynasty 18 a new iconography appeared for royal women who were Principal Wives: two cobras on their brow rather than one.

Detail of a statuette of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III. Louvre, Paris.

On the small faience statuette above, representing Tiye, the royal wife wears two cobras on her brow with a vulture head in the centre. If you look closely you can see the vulture’s wings on top of her braided hair. This distinguished her as the Principal Wife and also a goddess.

Wives of Amun

The same iconography can be found later in Dynasty 25. During this period a number of the Kushite royal women in Kemet were presented as the Wife of the god Amun. In this role they received political power and wealth and were designated as goddesses, and the Wife of Amun also chose her successor from the women of the royal family. This role is represented on the small chapel of Amenirdas at Medinat Habu, where the Divine Wife Amenirdas receives offerings from her successor Shepenwepet (below).

God’s Wife Shepenwepet makes an offering to Ra Horakhty, his consort, and the God’s Wife Amenirdas

By adopting specific roles, the royal women of Kemet elevated their status and power.  The Chapel of Amenirdas dates to around 747-656 BCE, over 600 years before the stela (relief) that I began this post with. It was, however, in Kush where royal women were presented as equals to their male consorts. On the pylon (gateway) of a temple to the lion god Apademak that was built in the first century BCE, the Kandake (Queen) Amanitore of Kush appears with a weapon, attacking the enemies of the state (below). This role is reserved for men in Kemet.

Detail of the Queen Amanitore from the pylon of the Temple of Apedemak, Kush

I would like to Dr Runoko Rashidi for suggesting the subject of this post and for providing me with the photograph of the stela. All views in the post are my own. 



Understanding the colour black in Kemet

The colour black in Kemet

I asked my friend Dr Runoko Rashidi for some inspiration for a blog post and he very kindly sent me a copy of a photograph of the Royal Wife and Mother Ahmose Nefertari. She was the wife of the first ruler of Dynasty 18- King Ahmose Nebpehtire, who ruled from 1550 to 1525 BCE. She was also the mother of Amenhotep (I) Djeserkare, who ruled from 1525 to 1504 BCE. It was in the latter capacity as the King’s Mother that she was made a goddess. The relief is of interest of course because her skin is painted black rather than the usual brown.

The ancient hieroglyphic writing of 'Kmt'
The ancient hieroglyphic writing of ‘Kmt’

The word Kemet literally means the Black land. The hieroglyphs above spell out the word and are accompanied by what we call a determinative (the circle and cross to the lower right of the word). In this case the determinative represents roads crossing and so a land.

In Kemet, black was associated with the night, with the Afterlife, and also with resurrection and rebirth. Black was also associated with fertility, we believe because it was the colour of the fertile soil that was deposited after the annual flooding of the River Nile.

The River Nile

Since the building of the Aswan dams the river no longer floods. However, even today it is possible to see how the river impacts on the terrain around it and how different this is compared to the surrounding desert escarpment. The annual inundation of the Nile was closely associated with the King of Kemet, and there were strict rules about when the ruler could and could not travel on the river.

Black and Divine

Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, circa 1560 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
Painted relief showing Ahmose Nefertari, now in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

The relief above was found in a tomb at the workman’s village of Deir el-Medina. This was where the men who created and decorated the royal tombs in the so-called Valley of the Kings and Queens lived, and were also buried. These were highly skilled craftsmen and artists and when the elite in their own society died they were given elaborately decorated tombs. The tomb where the relief was found is now known as TT359 (TT being a shorter reference for Theban Tomb). It belonged to a man who held the position of Chief of Works named Inherkhau. He lived long after Ahmose Nefertari had ruled and commissioned two tombs; the second is now referred to as TT299. The tombs and the painting of Ahmose Nefertari were produced over 350 years after the Royal Wife and Mother’s death. Indicating that her role of goddess continued long after it was awarded.

If we look in detail at the painting we can immediately see that this is a representation of a goddess. If you look carefully at the cap which she wears you can see a wing stretching over the hair; and at the front, over the forehead, is the head of a vulture. Only goddesses wear this vulture cap. Royal women are depicted with a cobra on their brow, which is called a uraeus and effectively protects, as well as identifies the subject as royalty. The style of dress that she wears is typical of those found in Dynasty 20, when the scene was painted, rather than the period when Ahmose Nefertari actually lived. Her hair is braided and held in position by what appear to be gold thread or beads at the ends. This is, of course, common in many African societies and amongst the African Diaspora. The bulk and proportions of the hair that is represented here also suggests that its type is African.

But what about the colour of her skin?

Here, I am going to suggest that the colour is symbolic rather than simply a realistic representation of Ahmose’s skin colour. In the same way that on Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom statuary and statuettes women are often depicted with very pale and white skin. This does NOT reflect their true complexions. In fact this suggestion by Eurocentrics makes no sense at all, particularly when we consider that the consorts or male equivalents have the more typical dark brown skin colours, which is no doubt closer to that of the population at the time. I suggest this because by the New Kingdom both men and women are depicted with the same range of complexions.

By suggesting that white = racialised White then this means that women were of non-African descent but the men were! Of course this is completely ludicrous. I would imagine that Ahmose Nefertari’s skin colour was similar to that of her son’s, who is depicted with brown skin, and who also clearly has African type hair.

There are other posthumous representations of Ahmose Nefertari that show her with black skin. There is also a statue that now has a dark blue appearance, due to the original black pigment having been damaged by light. Using this powerful and potent colour to represent a goddess makes reference to her fertility and rebirth, which is why she was a popular goddess in tombs that were made substantially later than her lifetime.

I find that when people start to explore ‘Egypt’ in its African context (Kemet) they focus on the more obvious references to people of African descent. The paintings of Ahmose Nefertari are a case in point. However, as their knowledge expands, they find that ALL aspects of this complex ancient culture are African and it makes no sense to try and remove it from other traditional African cultures. The complexions that depict mortals, as opposed to gods or the deceased, show them with a range of brown-coloured skins (below), as you find amongst people of indigenous African descent people today. It is these depictions that are probably a truer representation of the people of Kemet and also Kush. But let’s not forget what an advanced and complex society Kemet was, nor how this is demonstrated by their development and use of symbolism.

A tomb relief showing Kemite/Egyptian people

I would like to thank Dr Runoko Rashidi for inspiring this post. The views expressed are my own. 

African Queens: The famous portrait of Nefertiti


This image has to be one of the most iconic to have survived from Ancient Kemet.  Nefertiti was the Great Royal Wife of Akhenaten. The Ancient Kemites didn’t actually have a word for ‘queen’, instead royal women took titles that described their position in the royal house. Both principal members of this royal family changed their names. Akhenaten, who ruled from 1352-1334 BCE changed his name from Amenhotep in the fifth year of his reign. Nefertiti, which means the Beautiful One is Here adopted the name Nefernefruaten, which translates as: Perfect One of Aten’s Perfection. The Aten being the divine sun disk, which was worshipped through the royal couple. It can been seen on the relief below, with rays that terminate in hands cascading down on the royal family.

A relief showing Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their family. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.

Presenting Nefernefruaten Nefertiti

In her initial portraits Nefertiti adopted the same features as her husband, but can be distinguished from him by wearing two cobras on her brow (a double uranus) as opposed to one. This portrait type is best illustrated by the colossal statues from Karnak (see below). However, in time a new portrait type emerged.

One of the colossal statues from Karnak representing Akhenaten.

There are still many questions remaining with regard to how long Nefertiti ruled for and whether she was replaced by her daughter as the principal Royal Wife. As a consequence, where statues were uninscribed it can be difficult to say with any certainty which royal female they represent. This problem is compounded by new artistic developments in the production of stone sculptures, whereby artists began to produce composite pieces; carved out of different pieces of stone rather than a single block.  The identification of the statue below is questionable. It is clearly from the so-called Amarna period and it could represent Nefertiti. Or it may represent one of the other royal daughters.

Egyptian head of Nefertiti or a royal princess from a statue
Limestone statue representing the principal royal wife, Nefertiti, or a princess. Copyright: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

You will notice the elongated head, which was characteristic of the early royal representations during this period. A natural comparison with the practice of head binding amongst for example the Mangbetu people is often made. However, I would urge caution because we cannot show a direct continuum from one culture to the other. What we can deduce is that this feature was an important enough to include in the early representations of this Kemite royal family.

The portrait

Painted limestone bust representing the Royal Wife Nefertiti. Egyptian Museum, Berlin

The famous portrait of Nefertiti depicts a more mature woman, wearing an unusual crown that became synonymous with her and which is found on other representations of the royal wife. It was found in the workshop of an artist named Thutmose at the royal city of Akhetaten. This city was the capital of Kemet during the reign of Akhenaten, but was later abandoned by King Tutankhamen.

The sculpture is 48 cm high and is made from limestone covered in layers of plaster and was then painted. The sculpture was, however, unfinished. A striking feature of the piece is that only one inlay for the eye is present. No adhesive has been found in the second socket, suggesting that this is how the sculpture was left by the artist Thutmose. It has been suggested, therefore, that it was in fact a sculptor’s model rather than a representation that would be used as a finished piece.

We don’t have sculptors’ models for all periods of Kemet’s history; although this is possibly due to lack of survival of artist workshops. The two periods where we have examples of such models are during the reign of Akhenaten, and then much later during the reigns of the early Ptolemaic rulers in the third century BCE.

Another unfinished piece representing Nefertiti that was also found in Thutmose’s workshop shows the artist’s guidelines on the surface (below). The features on this particular piece are a cross between the Cambridge statue (above) and the famous bust.

An unfinished sculpture representing Nefertiti from the workshop of Thutmose

Such sculptures enable us to understand the complexities of defining and disseminating the royal image. They explain how, in such an expansive country, the King and his consort were able to control how they were represented. And they are also testimony to the skills of the artists of Kemet. As an archaeologist, I generally refrain from viewing material culture as ‘art’. However, there can be no doubt that not only is the famous portrait of Nefertiti part of an important artistic process, and the product of a master artist of the time, but it is also an artistic masterpiece that rivals anything that has since been produced.


African Queens: Cleopatra

Reconstructing Cleopatra

I have always hesitated to take part in documentaries, because although they set out to be factual, producers often have a set agenda and story that they wish to explore. This agenda quickly becomes apparent in the types of questions that are asked of specialists, and no matter how hard you try to avoid acquiescing, it is the filmmakers who have the ultimate control in the way that they edit.

In 2008 I was asked, in light of writing a book on Cleopatra, to take part in a documentary on the subject of the queen. The producers wanted to reconstruct how Cleopatra might have looked and asked if this would be possible. I said that it was, by looking at statues of the queen. However, from the offset I said that I would only take part if the producer was prepared not to perpetuate the myth that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous film.

A brief background to Cleopatra

Cleopatra was descended from Macedonian Greeks, who first arrived in Egypt with the army of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE Ptolemy, one of his generals, took control of Kemet. By the time Cleopatra first came to power in 51 BCE her family had lived in Egypt for two hundred and seventy-two years. In terms of Cleopatra’s immediate ancestry we do not know the identity of Cleopatra’s grandmother, who was a concubine rather than official wife, nor are we certain who her mother was. It is therefore possible that the concubine(s) were either of Macedonian Greek descent but equally possible that they were indigenous Kemites, along with the majority of the population at that time. We know from documentary research that an increasing number of the population of Ptolemaic Egypt had mixed Greek-Kemite ancestry. This can be documented through people’s names.

Following a process (of sorts)

With this in mind, I began to work remotely with a company that specialised in computer-generated images. I sent them photographs of a statue of Cleopatra that was found in Rome at a sanctuary of Isis (below left). In case people are wondering, the nose was damaged when the statue was used as ballast in a later building on the site of the original sanctuary. In spite of the statue’s later fate, aside from some surface damage to the nose, all of the features (including the original shape of the nose) were present. I naively thought that this would be a simple task.

A statue (left) representing Cleopatra of Egypt and a first attempt to produce a digital image of the queen

The initial images that were generated can be seen above alongside the original statue. Although the fullness of the mouth has been maintained, little else of the physical features have survived. The nose has been narrowed, the fullness of the jaw line has also been trimmed, and the eye shape is not true to the original.

Reconstruction of Cleopatra based on a statue of the Queen from Rome

The initial attempts looked nothing like the statue. However, eventually we were able to produce features that were closer to the original statue than the first attempt (above). There next challenge was the hair. On the statue that was used as a model for reconstructions Cleopatra is shown with layered locks. The style is a longer version of that worn by Kawit, who was a royal wife of King Montuhotep Nebhetepre, who ruled Kemet from around 2046 to 1995 BCE. Kawit appears on the side of a sarcophagus (coffin) with her hairdresser, who attaches a piece of styled hair to the royal wife’s head (below).

A detail of a relief showing royal wife Kawit having her hair styled


Statue representing Cleopatra as Isis. Capitoline Museums Rome

In addition to her hair, the statue (left ) presents the queen with a vulture headdress (the head of the vulture is now missing); this symbol identified her as a goddess. The statue doubtless shows Cleopatra as Isis. All of Cleopatra’s representations in her homeland show her as an Egyptian ruler. It is only on coinage minted overseas and on two sculptures that were manufactured in Italy that she was presented with Greek iconography, showing her as a Classical ruler.


Detail of a sculpture representing Cleopatra. Vatican Museums, Pius-Clementine Museum.

The two Classical sculptures (see one example above) also depict Cleopatra with coarse, curly hair; in both instances it is twisted and pulled back into a small bun. The hairstyle was unusual on Classical sculptures, and if we compare the queen’s hair to her predecessors we see waves but not with the coarseness or to the extent that we find on Cleopatra’s Classical-style representations. In short, the closest parallel that I could find for her hairstyle was either twists or plaits that are both commonly worn by people of African descent with African-type hair. The resulting style that was created by the digital artists was somewhere in between (see below and also feature image).

Cleopatra_Profile View_Darker_2
Final version of the computer generated image representing Cleopatra

Responses to the images

Just before the documentary was shown, The Daily Mail (a tabloid newspaper for those reading this blog outside of the UK) ran an article on the reconstruction. The article was entitled ‘Sorry Liz but THIS is the real face of Cleopatra’. The article summarised the documentary and showed a picture of the reconstruction. The wider circulation of the reconstructed images and the opportunity for readers to share their comments on the newspaper’s website, provided a forum for the general public to air their, unsubstantiated, points of view on the racialized identity of Cleopatra.

Some comments were dismissive, others were outraged, and some revealed racist attitudes and ideals embedded within the doctrines of European/White supremacy. From a social psychological perspective, many of these comments enable a clearer understanding of the roots of prejudice and racism more widely. Many reminded me of an encounter that I observed in New York in 2006, and which I wrote about in one of my books on Cleopatra (Cleopatra and Egypt). I was undertaking research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and heard a man, who it seemed from the conversation was of American nationality and Greek descent talking to his sons. He said to them that in school they would be told that the Egyptians were the forefathers of African-Americans and that this was wrong. He asked his children if the figures on a temple looked like African Americans and they shook their heads in agreement with their father, who then went on to remind them that Cleopatra who was Queen of Egypt was Greek, as indeed were their own ancestors.

Cleopatra and her son make offerings to the gods on the Temple of Hathor at Denderah

The temple to which the man referred dated to the reign of the Emperor Augustus. It was not, therefore, a representative example for the man to use in his lesson. Nevertheless, this conversation and many of the responses to the idea that ancient Egypt was an African civilisation and that Cleopatra may have been herself part African are revealing in the sense that they allow those of us to see exactly why people react so vehemently against the idea.

What’s the problem?

If the idea that Cleopatra was of mixed African/Macedonian Greek ancestry is so bizarre, why do people respond so strongly? Why does she have to remain ‘pure’ as one commentator on the Daily Mail website stated? The answer lies in an earlier post that I wrote about cognitive dissonance, and in many respects the Cleopatra ‘experiment’ reveals this. It is strange that people use Shakespeare and Hollywood to evidence how Cleopatra simply couldn’t have looked like the proposed reconstruction rather than turning to the images of the queen that have survived from her lifetime. It is ironic that some people of European descent wish to maintain ownership of Cleopatra. Octavian, who later became the Emperor Augustus, was not so keen to welcome either her, or her son by Julius Caesar to Rome and it is quite apparent that the Queen was seen to be Egyptian.